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LIDIA VIANU -- ELAINE FEINSTEIN
My voice finds me when I write.
Interview with ELAINE FEINSTEIN (born 24 October 1930), British poet, novelist, translator and literary critic
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Your preface to your Collected Poems states that you have the sense of ‘being an outsider’. This is a major trait of what I call Desperado writers, who are never at home, even if they never travel abroad. Your poetry strikes me as a homeless poetry. You need a home but cannot really find it. Not in verse. Your lines are a constant tension and struggle. Does this make you feel part of Postmodernism/Desperado – meaning part of what has been going on in literature since the 1950s?
I feel at home in London, now, because I have a wide circle of friends, but my
generation is aware of a kind of precariousness which (I think) my children
largely lack. They have assimilated to British culture and way of life, while I
still trail a residual knowledge of that Central European abyss which could
easily have been my own. That knowledge used to make me rather impatient with
the limited range of concerns of many English poets.
I began to write in the fifties. I was very conscious then of being an outsider but also rather proud of having roots elsewhere. My four grandparents were Russian Jews, who arrived in England at the end of the nineteenth century. The two families were very different. My mother’s father, a glazier, was very successful, and his children went to University, two of them to Cambridge. My father’s family worked in the wood trade, and my grandfather was a scholar, who knew several languages, but was always a hopeless businessman. His affairs were kept afloat by his many children, who had to leave school early to cope. My father left school at twelve. All that side of my family believed God would look after them, while my mother’s brothers were militantly atheists, believing only education could put the world to rights. When I won a Scholarship to Cambridge, I was, I suppose, in the Compton tradition of my mother. But I relished the confident, reckless lives of my father’s family. And I didn’t want to take after my mother, who was a rather timid woman; pretty, but crushed because her rhesus negative blood killed all the children she conceived after me. When I began to write in the fifties, I was very conscious then of being an outsider but also rather proud of having roots elsewhere.
LV. Mother Love is a poem of Desperado directness. It is boldly personal and rendingly tender. Your tenderness handcuffs you. Most poets today hide their vulnerability. You and Ruth Fainlight parade it and prevail in spite of it. Your voice is strong in poems. Do you feel feminism would be an option in your case? When I told Ruth Fainlight I did not think she could ever be a feminist, she was upset. She said she was. I do not think you are a feminist either. Is that acceptable to you?
EF. There are so many strands of feminism. I am, truly, pre-feminist. In my generation of Cambridge graduates, I was the only woman to go on working after marriage and having children. I have always earned my own living—necessarily, since I do not have the usual domestic virtues, and needed to pay for a cleaner. Working did not make me independent of my husband though, even when I was financially an equal partner. In the Seventies I did find the women’s movement very sustaining, notably a group of writers who wrote for Emma Tennant’s magazine Bananas, such as Angela Carter who was a friend. But most of my novels deal with a struggle for self-esteem which fails because of some pathetic female wish to be part of a loving and bonded couple. My novels are a very important way into understanding me, but if we are to look at the trajectory of my development as a poet, I can see that when I began I was very well aware that I didn’t have the right voice for English poetry, and that was why I turned to the Americans, because I enjoyed their rhythms and intonations. I even started my own magazine to introduce poets such as Charles Olson and Denise Levertov to an English audience.
LV. You end Buying a House for Now with the lines:
to the beauties
of now only
Your poems create a sense of beautiful in spite of ugliness. Your voice is frail, yet indomitable. You feed on the past, although you proclaim the beauty of now. The Desperado is a writer who is a slave to the past, to his memory and inevitable nostalgia. Would you accept being classified as a Desperado from this point of view?
EF. I like
the word Desperado, though your definition is new to me. I think the poem you
pick out is filled with what Vosnesensky calls ‘nostalgia in the present’.
LV. There is in your poems the image of a rather absent partner (‘I know how/ you want to be rid of us, you were/ never a family man’ – Marriage), whom you love in a painful way:
we share this flesh we
bring together it hurts to
think of dying as we lie close
Desperadoes as authors have never claimed love might be a major interest. They have pushed it to a small corner of the plot or the poem, yet, at the end of their text, we realize love is their main concern. You do not have love poems as proud statements of the feeling, yet all your poems are pervaded by tenderness. There is a Desperado paradox here: you write passionate poems about a discreet exile of the feelings. Do you consider yourself a sentimental poet?
I suppose when my husband was alive I did think that
love was on the sideline of the main thrust of my interest. Sadly I now admit
that was never truly the case. We had a difficult marriage but a very intense
Indeed, if you look through my Collected Poems, you will find many of
them do address the difficulties and intensity of that marriage, notably
‘Separations’, ‘Bonds’ ‘ Living Room’, and in a humorous way ‘Wheelchair’.
LV. Anniversary ends with:
I shall have to whisper it
into your heart directly: we are all
supernatural every day
we rise new creatures cannot be predicted
This amounts to a confession of hope. Your poems are all hopes for affection of one kind or another. What prompts you into writing them? Is it solitude, love, need for communion, desire to confess in an indirect way?
EF. That particular poem was written as an anniversary present for my husband. At its heart, is the knowledge of the difference between science – my husband was a brilliant molecular biologist – and the numinous. apprehension of the world by a poet. He was always so angry that I imagined scientists look for patterns, when truly they look at evidence, that I stopped reading it in his presence, though it is one of the poems listeners like most. As to the longing for love. No.... The wish to give love.
LV. A Prayer for My Sons reminds, in title only, of Yeats’ A Prayer for My Daughter. Desperadoes love rewriting, winking at previous texts. Did you have Yeats in mind when you used that title? You ask your ‘bright sons’ to forgive you for having ‘put my fear into you’. This would never have occurred to Yeats to do. It seems to me you delight in differing from him and you do it on purpose. I may be wrong, though. Am I?
EF. I confess I did not have Yeats in mind. I was desperately afraid that I had damaged my talented and intelligent children .
LV. I Have Seen Worse Days Turn ends with another memorable line: ‘How do you change the weather in the blood?’ Desperado poets love to write an apparently blank poem, and then, bang, end it with a rainbow line, like fireworks. You do that all the time. You save the best for last. Is it a conscientious act to end the poem strongly?
EF. I try to end all my poems memorably, sometimes even using a rhyme to make the ending stronger. I notice, however, that when writing poetry with American free verse in my ear I made little use of rhyme. After working on my translations of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, I came to value stanzaic form, and used rhyme more frequently, notably in the poems from Gold and Daylight.
LV. Birthday: a Dark Morning reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s love seen as ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ (The Waste Land). You call joy ‘that impudence’. Your half-ironic, half-sad line seems to withdraw from Eliot while echoing him. Were Eliot or Yeats among your masters? If not, who was?
EF. Ah: of course I loved both Yeats and Eliot, but when I began to write they were the influences who had to be thrown off. I found the Americans – Pound, Stevens, Williams – helped me. And Charles Reznikoff was particularly important to me, particularly in the way he tried to evoke the presence of a single person. Then – see my interview with Michael Schmidt in PNR – it is on my web site – the Russians, particularly Tsvetaeva. I encountered her work in a library, while researching a series of lectures I was giving on rhythm. I found her name in Pasternak’s Safe Conduct, and then found she only existed in Russian. So I made versions of her, with the help of Angela Livingstone from the Russian Department of the University of Esssex, at first only for myself. It was a transforming experience. She released me from the constraints of the poetry being written all round me... From the fear of self exposure. From defensive caution. And of course from English irony.
LV. Out of Touch is one of the sentimental poems, kind of post-Browning in tone:
don’t be lonely don’t let us
always be living singly on
some bleak journey wait for me:
this deliberate world is
rapidly losing its edge.
Dover Beach echoes close by. Yet what you write is unmistakably contemporary. There is no retro air to your poems. Your words are tragically up-to-date. Even love is a source of tragedy. If I had to choose between sense of humour and depth to characterize your verse, I would most certainly choose the latter. How would you characterize yourself?
EF. English poetry delights in irony as a way of keeping deep feeling at a distance. This is not a sentimental poem – the fears expressed of loss and separation are only too real.
LV. One of your poems is entitled like Ruth Fainlight’s cycle, Sybil. Are you a friend of Ruth Fainlight? You share the same feeling of guilt that is particularly Jewish. You do have a number of similarities, even though your voices are distinct from each other.
Yes, Ruth is a friend.
She is far more interested in the poet
as seer than I am. Ted Hughes’ voice is in the background for both of us.
But I wrote a whole long poem The Celebrants ( see particularly
the last lyric) to distance myself from his seductive emphasis on the whole
cult of shamanism. Both of us were influenced by Leonard Basin’s terrifying
bird/sibyls, I suspect. But my work is nothing like Fainlight’s.
LV. You have a courage that is very much your own, because it survives in the vicinity of fear, frailty, regret. You say ‘God punishes regret’ (Regret). We must do our best and go forward. Is that your philosophy of life? It seems to me you allow nothing to stand in your way, frail and vulnerable as you may seem. There is bravery to helplessness and you certainly have that.
EF. We are all vulnerable. It is the human condition. Now I am a widow I understand the full meaning of mortality.
LV. Photographs has a line that can be associated with the Desperado sense that the beautiful, brave hero is dead and has been replaced by the ordinary. Actually this started with Modernism, with Virginia Woolf explicitly, but she did not really accomplish what her essay Modern Fiction claimed must be done. The Desperadoes get to put into practice what she preached. You write:
‘Oh Daddy,’ I asked once
‘why aren’t I prettier?’ He was kindly but embarrassed.
I have found this admission of the opposite of beauty in poets as different as Alan Brownjohn, Ruth Fainlight, Selima Hill. It conveys far more than ‘She walks in beauty’, in fact. It goes straight to the core of pain in life. Is the pain of life your favourite subject for verse?
EF. I think it is. Alan Brownjohn is also a friend, by the way. Very English, but very frank about his own sense of himself. I have to say that while writing the life of Anna Akhmatova I have come to understand that beautiful women have a completely different experience of life. I remember, at the other extreme, that Tsvetaeva wrote: ‘I never counted in the masculine present.’
LV. Homecoming states: ‘this city music and a few friends keep me sane.’ Actually I did have a feeling of precarious sanity while walking the tight rope of your despair. What is your favourite, courage (as a triumph over fear) or sanity (as a triumph over senseless defeats)?
EF. It is only through bravery that you can overcome inevitable defeats. But I know that much of what I have done would have been impossible without the support of friends.
LV. I think age comes naturally with you. Getting Older states: ‘We all approach the edge of the same blackness/ which for me is silent.’ Youth is not one of your themes, but age is. It was for Yeats, too. In the same sense as it is for you – as a brave confrontation of what cannot be prevented. You have written about your children, but not so much about yourself when young. You seem to have taken youth for granted. You do not regret it. Which means age has its rewards. What I mean is, you are a very stable, well-balanced poet. Does this steadiness really come naturally or did you have to work at it?
EF. I found a sense of balance as I grew older... I was very febrile as a young woman. I think I was happier as I grew older, though I suppose I am thinking of my forties when I say that.
LV. One more echo, Sylvia Plath, with Lady Lazarus, in your ironically different title Lazarus’ Sister. Did you meet Sylvia Plath? Ruth Fainlight was friends with her. Were you in their circle? Is this poem a real echo of her poem?
EF. I knew Ted Hughes but not Sylvia. (By the way, I have written Ted’s biography... do you know it? It came out in 2001.) No echoes of Plath here. This is a very private poem about nursing someone clinically depressed .
LV. Separations states clearly one reason of difference between you and your partner (I suppose it is your husband?):
But conversation was what you wanted,
some exchange of thought, while I
needed tenderness more than talk.
It puts the essence of your poetry in a nutshell. You do not write philosophical lines, you capture tenderness. The poetic mood for you is the tender mood. You avoid intellectual dryness, even though your poems are small essays on how to feel. Desperadoes hate the pompous Victorian poetic diction. Do you plan your voice or does it find you when you write?
EF. I like what you say here. And yes, my voice finds me when I write.
LV. Is it displeasing to you that a reader may look for your life in your poems? Bed states:
Now let these words be a loving charm
against the fear of loneliness
I cannot help wondering what the story of your existence is. Like any Desperado poet, you are good at avoiding confession. Why do you think contemporary poets are so unwilling to use biography as plot for poetry?
EF. I write novels, and they rather explicitly make use of my own experience. See The Border, Mother’s Girl, Loving Brecht , and Lady Chatterley’s Confession.
LV. In The First Wriggle you mention ‘a freedom// in which poems could happen.’ Is poetry freedom or bondage to you while you write it?
EF. Poetry is freedom.
LV. In several poems you mention Romania. I guess you must have visited the country and Bucharest. I understand your parents came from Odessa. Do you have any relatives in Romania, too? You have written nothing about Odessa. I remember Carol Rumens’ poems about Russia. Have you been there? Is that space of interest to you?
EF. I was in Romania on a British Council visit of about a week, a few years ago. I doubt there are any relatives there... I have been to Russia many times, and with Russianist help, translated the poems of several major poets, including Marina Tsvetaeva. (They are in the Collected Poems). I’ve just completed a biography of Akhmatova.
LV. I read in Allegiance:
— Kovno, Odessa, packing and running away—
But that is all you say. I cannot help thinking of Chagall and his pogrom imagery. Does this might-have-been which you escaped haunt your dreams?
LV. In Still Life I find: ‘the biology of tenderness is forgotten.’ In this world of ‘outsiders’ (a word you also apply to Roy Fisher in City Lights), you say, poets do not ‘fit’ (Modern Tower). This inability to fit or feel at home and sheltered, is typical for Desperadoes. They are the ill-loved. I think you are one of them. Your Hotel Maimonides, 2 very much resembles Ruth Fainlight’s The English Country Cottage. You write:
Why are my dreams disturbed
by crossing borders, hiding, stories
of angry peasants...
I have lived in a rare island of peace
As a last question: what race, religion, group of poets and type of poetry do you belong to?
EF. I think the emphasis of my Hotel Maimonides is VERY different from Fainlight, who is trying to imagine her own fitting in otherwise.
I am a British poet, of Russian Jewish origin. I belong to my family, and to a group of good friends, some novelists, some poets, who live as it happens on several continents as well as locally in NW London. I wrote that poem in Cordova, where I had spent a week, helping a group of poets to translate my poems into Spanish. The situation is totally different there, since Jews have only in the last twenty years or so been allowed to return there. My concern is with the whole Jewish people, and their difficult history under threat.
February 13, 2005
The Dilemma of Assimilation
Interview with ELAINE FEINSTEIN (born October 24, 1930), British poet, novelist, literary critic and translator.
Published in Semnal, 116/April 2006, Toronto, pp. 28-29
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Where exactly were your parents born? Do you feel connected to Eastern Europe in any way?
ELAINE FEINSTEIN: Both of my parents were born in Liverpool, England. My grandparents however, came to England in the nineteenth century from Odessa in the Ukraine, and I have always been very conscious of that. As you know I have worked on the lives and poems of Russian writers all my literary life.
LV. You did not experience the Holocaust yourself. But you do write about it. What is your feeling about that part of Jewish (though not only Jewish) history?
EF. In fact, I don’t write about the Holocaust, though my novels deal with survivors of it (Children of the Rose) or a group of people so caught up in their own personal lives that they seem unaware of what is approaching (The Border). I was in England throughout the Nazi massacres, which I only learned about when I saw the films of the liberation of Belsen in 1945. Those films marked my young life however. In a sense, all my generation were ‘survivors’.
LV. You are undoubtedly part of British literary life now. Have you ever felt – or do you now – that you also belong to a Jewish tradition?
EF. I do see myself as belonging to a long tradition of poets and story tellers from all over the world and not just this island.
LV. Can Jews – are they allowed to – ever totally assimilate to the country they live in (since most Jews live in exile)? Is not living in Israel equivalent to (religious) exile to you?
EF. It is easier to assimilate into Britain now than it was in my parents’ generation, though even then uncles and aunts on my mother’s side went to University and deliberately became as English as they could be.
LV. Were you brought up in the Jewish religious tradition? Are you a religious person? Have you brought up your own sons in the same way?
EF. My parents were conventionally religious; and I still believe in God – though I have many questions about that—and keep up some of the customs. However, my husband was a scientist and a rationalist. All my sons married non-Jewish girls. Two out of three are convinced that my religious beliefs are superstition.
LV. What exactly does ‘being Jewish’ mean to you?
EF. It means being part of an honorable, loving family of people who believe in peace and reason, and have contributed a great deal to human understanding.
LV. Have you ever experienced racial persecution or rejection? Have you ever felt an alien in England?
EF. No. Though very recently both the liberal press and the BBC have been increasingly hostile to Israel, and it has become far more acceptable to use old Jewish stereotypes in cartoons and anecdotes. I find myself having to remind my liberal friends how it was Israel came to be created.
LV. Has it ever occurred to you to leave the country you were born in and go to Israel, be part of the literary life there, learn the language, make a difference politically, not just intellectually (which you already do, wherever you are)?
EF. Well, I went to Israel a couple of years after the foundation of the State, and I realized I was not a natural pioneer. Life on the banana plantations was very hard. But in any case I could not have given up the English language.
LV. Should a Jew assimilate to his country of adoption (if he is allowed)? Is assimilation possible, as far as those who are not Jewish are concerned? Is it easy to be accepted?
EF. Assimilation is a perfectly honorable option. If it is possible. My sons feel they already have assimilated, and my grandchildren do not even think of being Jewish. But this is a situation that has happened many times. Most markedly in Germany. I don’t know what will happen. Something deep inside me believes the whole story will not have such an easy end.
LV. Is race important nowadays? Have we outgrown the concept?
EF. I think we are witnessing clashes of culture and religion rather than race at the moment. But of course there are overlaps.
LV. If you could choose another life within a race/culture/religion you desired, which would that be?
EF. I cannot answer that. I am 75, and I cannot believe in another history for myself.
In the lands of Sepharad, on the river Tagus:
a town the colour of biscuit, a long horizon,
smooth, bare mountains, and beyond
the desert and a white sliver of moon.
It is the limestone city of Toledo, where
people settled after Jerusalem
-- silversmiths, traders, basket makers, scholars?
and Spain at first was happy to receive them.
There was a Golden Age, and in that hope,
houses were built with fountains in the courtyard;
men in their book-lined studies were translators
who brought the Greeks through Arabic to Europe.
But when they had to leave, with sombre eyes,
they bartered a house for a donkey,
a vineyard for a piece of cloth,
and nicknames followed them, like police spies.
And those who did not leave?
They turned to the Holy Cross,
though some lit candles on a Friday night
without remembering why,
and cooked in oil rather than lard;
others became fervent New Christians,
and married into the best families;
until the Inquisition began to inquire
more urgently into their old habits,
-- for instance, if they did not light a fire on Saturdays in a cold winter
-- Neighbours gave evidence against the rich.
Most admitted their sins under torture, as
people will, and some were brought to blame
fellow conversos for their practices.
It did not help them to escape the flames.
Nor did the ignorant suffer any less.
Read how Elvira del Campo pleaded,
as they broke her arms, only to understand:
‘Tell me what I have done that I may confess.’